reading my way through every country in the world…

#32 The Netherlands – After many a premature evacuation…

The Twin
By Gerbrand Bakker (trans. by David Colmer)
Archipelago Books, 2009
Winner, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2010

For several months now, I have been suffering from premature evacuations. I have started a number of books only to get about three or four chapters in and then making a swift and dissatisfied evacuation. Then, finally, came along The Twin a book which, fittingly, s also about a premature evacuation…in this case, the death of a man who is a twin, son, fiancee and of the spiritual deaths this wracks upon those who were close to him.

I was hooked from the opening sentence – “I’ve put Father upstairs” –  and then held captive for days. I have both bored and frustrated my family and friends with demands that they read this book NOW but without telling them anything about its contents because this is a book that has to be allowed to work its magic without forewarning. I will now attempt to write a blog review without spoiling that magic for everyone else.

The Twin is a book about loneliness. It seems strange to say that in this hyper-connected world that is the 21st century but all three of the pivotal characters in The Twin are lonely and this book is an examination of how that state can be a product of choices we have made or because of circumstances thrust upon us – both of these situations are at play in this novel.

For Helmer van Wonderen, loneliness is largely due to circumstances not of his choosing.  Along with his twin Henk, Helmer was born and raised on a relatively remote farm in the Dutch countryside. Having always felt that his father, a hardheaded and somewhat callous man, preferred his brother and saw Henk as the one who would inherit the farm, Helmer reconciles himself to a life of study and travel, embarking on an education in Amsterdam in his late teens. Tragedy strikes the family, however, with the loss of Henk and Helmer is forced to take his twin’s position as next in line for the farm. Helmer accepts this fate and works side by side with his father until eventually ailing health renders the latter unable to work and also at the mercy of his son who holds a seething level of animosity for his father…but why?

As it takes some time for the explanation of Helmer’s anger towards his father to unfold in the novel, Helmer’s initial ill, almost inhumane, treatment of his father comes as quite a shock and the reader feels an unsettling disconnection from the main narrator. This only serves to make the book all the more compelling. It made me realise how much, as a reader, I want and need to feel this connection with the main character and how much I am willing to invest in a book in order to find it.

As well as setting up the dynamics between Helmer and his parent, the early part of The Twin is also concerned with explaining Helmer’s twin’s death and of introducing Riet who was his twin’s fiancee and the cause, albeit accidentally, of Henk’s death. Riet then makes a surprising return to the immediate plot of the novel, seeking Helmer’s assistance with her troubled son who is also named Henk. Riet asks Helmer if Henk can come and stay on the farm, hoping the hard work and time to reflect might help Henk to find himself and his way.

Young Henk is unlikeable character: rude, lazy and with a sense that the world owes him something. He is very much the antithesis of Helmer who has lived his life as though the world owed him nothing and has therefore failed to obtain the things he needed even if he didn’t know that he needed them. As might be expected, each learns the advantages of the other’s way of life but to its credit, the book doesn’t end in some sort of saccharine “everything turns out well in the end” way. Rather an uneasy yet ultimately satisfying conclusion eventuates with the characters, including Helmer and his father, all coming to a greater understanding if not liking for one another.

How I imagine the van Wonderen farm

Two extremely important additional characters in this novel are the Dutch countryside and Denmark. The latter because it exists as a sort of symbol for all that Helmer feels he has missed out on in his life. From a very young age, Helmer would spend hours pouring over the names of the towns and cities of Denmark in his atlas, it is as though if he could only make it to Denmark that he would find the life he has been too fearful or too acquiescing to have found. Still now, when under stress, he takes solace in reciting the names of places in Denmark “Jutland, Zealand, Funen, Bornhom, the great Belt, the Little Belt, Odessa” – it becomes a form of meditation.

The Dutch countryside is a character because it not only explains the sense of isolation and loneliness the characters feel but also assists in creating the suspense that underlies this book. Take this passage, for example,

“On my way to the windmill I see something I’ve seen several times in the last few days – something disturbing. A flock of birds flying neither north nor south but all directions at once, swerving constantly. The only noise is the sound of flapping wings. The flock is made up of oystercatchers, crows and gulls. That’s what strange: never before have I seen these three species flying together. There’s something ominous about it”.

If I was wanting to get a true sense of place, I couldn’t have chosen a better book, there is no way of divorcing what is happening both within and between the characters from their surroundings. This is a place where a plate of eel and kale brings joy to a sick old man and, as a result, displeasure to his angry son. It is a place where a pair of unexpected rowers take a brief respite among the yellow lillies fringing the farm and bring sadness to a middle-aged farmer when they comment that the place looks like it would not have changed since 1967. A place where a big black crow perched on a tree outside Father’s window acts as some sort of omen – threatening, all-knowing, taunting but of whom and about what…?

So how to sum up this book? I think that a poem – what Helmer calls “condensed reality” – that Helmer copies out to reflect his own feelings, in fact reflects the entire novel, particularly the poem’s title “to yearn and pursue”. The poem is as follows:

Why do I always see
- when I have closed my eyes
in bed or in my thoughts -
your nose, your hair, your chest?
I sometimes see myself
in mirror or in windowpane
just after I’ve seen you:
my own half body.
For all of your youth and beauty,
I think I look like you –
my nose and chest and hair
are all identical.

So now that I think about it, this book is also about how a single death can cause so many other deaths – the death of a father’s vision for his own future, the death of a brother’s sense of identity and self, the death of a husband who was never able to so become, the death of unblemished future for a son who lives in the shadow of a man who could never be his father. As is perhaps evident from this post, this is a book that you will keep reflecting upo and changing your mind about for a long time after reading it. I think it has become one of my favourites.

The Literary Nomad xx

More on The Netherlands…
Capital: Amsterdam

Population: 16,847,007

Area: 41,543 km2

Language: Dutch

Religion: Roman Catholicism – but is one of the most secular countries in Europe.

Currency: Euro

Delay your stay: The Coffee Trader by David Liss; The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier; The Assault by Harry Muslich; The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas; The fall by Albert Camus; The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Bloom.

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